Wichita product Caleb Grill talks UNLV, Iowa State transfer

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UNLV’s Caleb Grill (3) plays against Fresno State in an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

AP

It’s hard to find a more unusual college basketball path than the one Caleb Grill has navigated over the past two years.

You need a road map to chart all his travels.

The former Maize standout guard has gone from signing with South Dakota State out of high school, to playing for Iowa State as a freshman, to playing for UNLV as a sophomore. But that’s not all. His career arc entered bizarre territory this spring when he announced plans to transfer for a second time … and ended up back at Iowa State.

“It’s been a crazy last couple years,” Grill said Tuesday in a phone interview from Las Vegas. “It’s definitely not what I expected, but I guess everything happens for a reason.”

Grill is only 20 years old, but his college basketball career has already come full circle. Even during an offseason when more than 1,300 men’s players have entered the transfer portal, his journey seems extreme.

He isn’t sure exactly what to say about it, other than that he thinks Iowa State is once again the right place for him because he has grown significantly as a basketball player over the past two seasons, and he thoroughly enjoyed his original year in Ames. He just wasn’t all that successful on the court, averaging 2.1 points and 1.7 rebounds per game while playing through ailments such as patellar tendinitis and a broken wrist.

This time around, he is confident he can make a bigger impact with the Cyclones, and, most importantly, finish out his college career with them.

“The game has slowed down for me so much since my freshman year,” Grill said. “When I first got to Ames, I had never experienced an offseason just playing basketball before. I played four sports in high school and went straight from state track to Iowa State. I finished the year playing pretty well, but it took me a long time to adjust. I was mostly a stand-in-the-corner guy while someone was trying to make a play for us. I have more experience and confidence now. I should be able to move throughout the offense and create more flow. I know I fit their new system.”

That is a perk that will come from staying with coach T.J. Otzelberger, who also recently left UNLV for Iowa State.

Grill said he also strongly considered Drake and TCU as transfer destinations and was open to any school within driving distance of Wichita that reminded him of home. But he ended up choosing Iowa State because of his familiarity with the Cyclones and their coach.

They almost seem connected at this point. If not for Otzelberger switching jobs between South Dakota State, UNLV and Iowa State over the past two years, it’s a safe bet Grill would have also stayed in one place.

“I love his energy,” Grill said. “He always brings it every single day to practice and to every game. He’s never going to have an off day. He is a perfectionist, he is very detailed with everything he does and he is one of the hardest working guys I have ever been around. He legitimately works 12 to 18 hours a day, and that’s not just time in the office. He has so much invested in his teams that it’s almost like he doesn’t have anything else on his mind other than basketball. That’s why I really like playing for him.”

Otzelberger praised Grill when Iowa State announced his transfer on Tuesday.

“Caleb competes in everything that he does,” Otzelberger said in a statement. “He takes pride in his defense, making the right play, shooting with accuracy and giving his all every time he takes the floor. His return to Ames will be very much anticipated and we’re excited for what he will accomplish as a Cyclone.”

It is unclear when Grill will be eligible to play for the Cyclones, because this is the second time he has transferred and he is not a graduate. But he is optimistic he can take the court next season because he was previously enrolled at Iowa State. If not, he can sit out next season and retain two years of eligibility.

Grill, a 6-foot-3 guard, made some nice strides playing for Otzelberger last year at UNLV. He started out the season playing the role of a stretch four, and that created some good mismatches for him on offense. Grill took advantage by scoring a career high 27 points in a game against Alabama at the Maui Invitational and he later had 12 points during a 68-58 victory over Kansas State, with close to 50 family and friends in attendance at Bramlage Coliseum.

It seemed like UNLV was the perfect place for Grill. But the Rebels were then sidelined for more than a month because of COVID-19 issues and they struggled to regain their rhythm when they returned to the court. Injuries also forced Grill to switch positions, and he ended up playing everything from point guard to power forward by the end of the year.

He expects to play shooting guard and small forward at Iowa State.

Grill boosted his production significantly, as he averaged 9.1 points and 3.2 rebounds per game last season. He says playing at UNLV significantly boosted his confidence and showed him what he is capable of as an upperclassman.

Still, he didn’t want to spend another year in Las Vegas. Especially not with Otzelberger by his side.

“I kind of want to get out of here,” Grill said. “We don’t really live in the nicest area of Vegas and it’s 18 hours away from home. The fan support out here is also brutal. I get ruthless (direct messages) from fans all the time that expect a little too much of us because they went to the Final Four in the 90s. They still expect that every year. People, in general, are just rude out here.”

If he had any reservations about returning to Iowa State they were put to rest when he checked his Twitter mentions following his commitment announcement.

Iowa State fans seemed to welcome him back with open arms.

“There are always going to be people that give you a hard time, but I would say for the most part people are really excited that I’m coming back,” Grill said. “I’m really excited to come back, too. I liked it there a lot. It’s a great place to be.”

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Kellis Robinett covers Kansas State athletics for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. A winner of more than a dozen national writing awards, he lives in Manhattan with his wife and four children.